Consider creating an ethical will (or legacy letter)

January 3, 2023

I speak often with clients about what legacy they want to leave. And that legacy often includes things that are not financial and maybe not even tangible. Ethical wills, sometimes called legacy letters, are a way to account for the intangible things you want to leave to your loved ones.

I started sharing this option with clients after creating legacy letters myself, and many have chosen to use this method to convey messages to close family members and sometimes friends.

An ethical will is not a binding or legal document, rather it is a personal document meant to convey your wisdom, memories, values, guiding principles, and wishes for future generations. The goal is to create an enduring record of things that matter to you but often go unsaid or overlooked.

While your legal will is born out of how you made and spent your money, your ethical will is born out of how you spent your life.

Related: See more ways to create a meaningful legacy

Why I wrote legacy letters

When I first wrote a legal will, deciding how to split my money wasn’t hard. I have 3 kids and I wanted to give to charity, so I willed 30% of my estate to each child and 10% to charity.

But I wondered what my kids would do with inherited money if I died young and didn’t have the benefit of time to raise them up and impart wisdom and skills around money management. So, I wrote them each a letter, encouraging them to continue their education, work hard, take some educated risks in life, invest young, and share with others who are facing harder times.

As I started sharing my experience with my clients, I found many wanted to do something similar. For some, it has been more of a love letter, while others have used it to give advice — financial or otherwise.

How to write an ethical will

Like with a legal will, the best time to start one is now. You can update it, add to it, or start over entirely down the road as life experiences shape your legacy. Sign and date it each time it is updated, and keep it with your estate documents so it can easily be found and shared.

The goal is not to write a memoir or capture your every thought. Include only the things that you most want others to know – the ideas, perspectives, and life lessons that are most meaningful to you.

Susan Turnbull of Personal Legacy Advisors recommends three steps to get started:

  1. Write down the name(s) of the individual(s) to whom you want to leave an ethical will.
  2. Write down the words that describe how you want them to feel when they receive it.
  3. Write down the one most important thing you want them to know.

Sometimes an ethical will can also add context to your legal will, potentially preventing conflict among heirs. If you leave money to certain charities or give more to family members in certain situations, your ethical will can give you the opportunity to explain the reasons behind those choices.

Examples of what to include

Your ethical will can be one document meant for a collective group or multiple documents for individuals. When an ethical will takes the form of a letter, some people call it a legacy letter. But it might also take the form of a video, a scrapbook, or a combination of written and visual records.

What you value will drive what is included in it. If most of your life lessons were learned while in the kitchen with family, you might include family recipes. If music plays an important role in your life, maybe you leave everyone with a list of albums you want them to listen to and what each means to you. The options are as varied as the people who create them.

Why to create an ethical will

Creating an ethical will is a way to reflect on your life and share those reflections with your heirs. It can be a forum to express love and gratitude, to pass on guidance and life lessons, to convey blessings.

It can be shared with family members during your life, to open lines of meaningful conversation. This can give people a chance to ask follow-up questions and dive more deeply into a topic, leading them further down the path you wish for them.

An alternative is for it to be read or presented as part of your memorial service or shared along with your legal will. A heartfelt letter read after your death can be a way to help loved ones come to terms with your death and focus on celebrating the life you lived rather than grieving the hole you’ve left behind.


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